Since 1901 — with a hiatus from 1968-89 — the train’s day job has been to run passengers to and from the nearby Grand Canyon. But this time of year, twice nightly under a cloak of darkness, Polar Express passengers travel through a space-and-time-altering tunnel to reach the North Pole. There Santa and elves wait to step on the train for its return trip to the Williams train depot. Some kids scream with excitement at the sight of Santa; others cuddle with loved ones in a quiet state of awe.
The Williams depot is about 3½ hours from Las Vegas, and tickets can be tough to get, but closer to home, Southern Nevada families can enjoy Boulder City’s Santa Train and Santa Express. Boulder City’s daytime Santa Trains offer ample $10-per-seat opportunities to ride the rails, sing along to holiday classics and catch a glimpse of Santa on weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The pricier evening Santa Express option on weekends includes a 40-minute train ride and a long stop at “Santa’s Railyard,” where children enjoy reindeer games, the desert version of a snowball fight (think giant cotton balls), storytime with Mrs. Claus, and cookies and hot chocolate.
The Boulder City passenger coaches used at Christmastime date to 1911 and 1913 and travel along the original Boulder Branch Line, which was constructed in 1930 to assist in the massive projects of building Boulder City and Hoover Dam.
For those who actually want to travel north to get to the Pole, holiday cheer abounds on Santa’s Reindeer Flyer in Ely, about a four-hour drive from Las Vegas. The trains used for the Reindeer Flyer hold an important spot in Nevada’s mining history. The Nevada Northern Railway, built in the early 1900s, connected the copper mines and smelter of the area’s Nevada Consolidated Copper Company. Mining operations shut down in 1983, and the railway was donated to the Nevada Northern Railway Museum.
Powered by vintage diesel locomotives, Santa’s Reindeer Flyer is one of several Ely excursions that have given Nevada Northern Railway its second life. Christmas singalongs, a visit to the North Pole to pick up Santa, cookies and hot cocoa are all part of the 90-minute winter experience.
“For many, trains and the holidays go hand in hand, so it seems only fitting that they would choose to combine the two into a single, fun experience,” says Christopher MacMahon, director of the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder City. “Many families want that special holiday magic, and that’s something they can find aboard the museum’s holiday trains, regardless of which event they choose. There is also nostalgia. We have many guests who rode the Santa Trains as children, and now come back each year with their children, building new, happy memories.”
Train stations in Ely, Boulder City and Williams are decked out in Christmas lights this time of year. Families can be spotted in matching holiday-themed pajamas queuing up for their yuletide rides. Some kids can be seen carrying their copies of The Polar Express or The Night Before Christmas.
My niece strode around in wonderment throughout our weekend in Williams, a true holiday believer. And in Williams and Ely, you might even get real snow to make a believer out of you, too. ◆
Santa Train Basics
■ Polar Express of Williams
5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. most nights through Dec. 30; $70 per adult, $53 per child (2-15); TheTrain.com.
■ Boulder City’s Santa Train and Santa Express
Option 1:$10 per person for 45-minute ride that includes a visit from Santa; 10:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23
Option 2: $35-$50 per person for two-hour excursion that includes train ride and several holiday-themed activities; 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings; BoulderRailroadMuseum.org.
■ Ely’s Santa’s
1 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on many Fridays and Saturdays from Nov. 23 to Dec. 23; extra rides, including on Sundays, in December leading up to Christmas; $45 per adult, $20 per child (4-12); NNRY.com.